Four years in the making, the documentary "Dog Days" sheds a soft light on the oft-ignored players in the District's long, long battle to bring better food to the streets: the iconic hot dog vendors and the man who tried to help them improve their noontime snacks.
Co-directors and producers Laura Waters Hinson and Kasey Kirby focus their cameras on two characters in particular: Siyone, a refugee from East Africa who supports her family with a sidewalk cart, and Coite Manuel, an unemployed engineer who launched Food Chain to help vendors like Siyone expand their menus beyond dirty-water dogs, chips, cookies and candy.
Because of the doc's personal touch, "Dog Days" transcends both the self-interested politics of Washington's vending regulatory wars and the city's byzantine depot structure, which has had a choke hold on sidewalk vendors for years. The documentary is as much about survival and finding your place in the world as it is about street food.
It's also hugely rewarding to watch. The early reviews from film festivals in Austin and Santa Barbara confirm as much. Noted one reviewer ahead of the doc's screening at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival: "'Dog Days' nicely balances the nuts and bolts of the battles with the real people affected by the debate."
"It's been super well-received," Hinson said by phone this morning. "People think they're coming in for one thing and leave with something very different."
Washingtonians will finally get a chance to view the documentary that explores the dirty little underbelly of their own city. "Dog Days" makes its D.C. debut at 7 p.m. today at Landmark's E Street Cinema, in an event hosted by the Moving Picture Institute and the Institute for Justice. Tickets, alas, are sold out.
But tonight's screening will not be your only chance to see the doc, Hinson promises. She's working on a distribution deal to bring the film into theaters. She's also planning to screen "Dog Days" at the Monroe Street Market this spring as the weather starts to warm. Hinson is even working to make the film available to organizations and individuals for private screenings. You can contact the filmmakers via their Web site to arrange a future screening.
Northeast residents Hinson and Kirby, who financed the $300,000-plus project mostly out of pocket (with $33,598 generated via a Kickstarter campaign), started filming "Dog Days" in 2009 after hearing Manuel's tale of woe. He had just lost his job, but despite the hardship, Manuel "has this dream to try to reach out to hot dog vendors and make them more competitive," Hinson recounts.
The filmmakers were fascinated by the realpolitik elements of the story: The depot owners and their vise-like grip on vendors, the bricks-and-mortar restaurants with their money and lobbying power and the modern-era food trucks, which sprouted like mushrooms and soon dominated the downtown landscape.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
The directors had hoped they had a classic feel-good story on their hands: With new vending regulations set to be published any day, Hinson and Kirby figured Manuel's Food Chain business would start thriving soon, as the District ended its moratorium and began issuing new licenses for sidewalk vendors. But the city dragged out regulations for years, as agencies and D.C. Council members struggled over the rules to best manage public space for both food trucks and bricks-and-mortar restaurants.
The protracted regulatory battle claimed a number of victims along the way, including Food Chain, which Manuel had to close. He didn't have enough business.
Manuel's decision threw the filmmakers for a loop. At one point while editing the film, Hinson says she wanted to trash the whole thing.
"What do you do with a film when his dreams don't come true?" asks the Florida native, who also made a movie about the aftershocks of the Rwandan genocide. "It was one of the hardest creative projects I've ever done."
But during the editing process, which the filmmakers didn't complete until October 2013, Hinson realized there was a deeper thread running through "Dog Days." The film, she decided, was about perseverance and survival in tough economic times.
It's about "the power of family," the director says. "What really matters in life is having the community around you to support you through successes and failures."
Hinson has one final hope for "Dog Days." She wants to "sell it at hot dog stands," she says. "Or give it to them to sell for their own profit." She already has an intern looking into this street-cart distribution project.
The official trailer:
A previous version of this post referenced the Motion Pictures Institute; the name of the organization is the Moving Picture Institute.